Meg Kowalski, Georgia tennis player and graduate student, is preparing to play the final matches of her stellar collegiate career in the NCAA tournament, the first two rounds of which will be held this Friday and Saturday in Athens.
Kowalski won the SEC tournament last week and earned MVP of the tournament after success in both her singles and doubles matches.
Kowalski, of LaGrange, Illinois, attended Smith Stearns Tennis Academy for three years before entering UGA in 2018.
Here, Kowalski talks about her time at UGA and shares what she’s thinking as that time nears its end.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Q: It’s your fifth-year on the team, can you tell me what it’s like being an older player and a team leader?
A: Yeah, I would say it’s super different than my first couple of years, I used to be the baby on the team. So, being a couple of years older than all the girls this year, especially because I’m 23 and we have 18- and 19-year-olds running around. So, it’s a new role being more of a leader. It’s difficult at times because they’re a lot younger than me. They maybe don’t understand why I’m being so hard on them for certain roles or different things that I’m maybe verbally giving them in regards to things like culture. I definitely think when I was an underclassman, I was questioning my captain: ‘Why? This is so silly. Why can’t we do this x, y and z?’ But I think that’s just how it goes.
Q: What’s the biggest message you try to get across to the younger players?
A: The biggest thing that I’ve been preaching is, gosh, it’s amazing to be a Georgia Bulldog. This is such a privilege. Especially because our team is very foreign, and we have had a lot of international student-athletes, which is so awesome to bring more cultures into the team, but also growing up, college is a big deal as an American. Knowing college football and the university, in general, is a different vibe than overseas. So, being able to make sure that they understand, gosh, this is people’s dreams. It’s the coolest thing ever. A lot of girls want to pursue pro after their tennis careers here in Georgia. So, making sure they understand that while you’re here, you’re leaving an incredible legacy. You’re part of amazing history. So, being proud of being a Georgia Bulldog and (take) that on the court with you. Understand that you’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for this amazing university, and (that) this is going to be some of the best years of your life.
Q: You’ve had multiple internships in the last five years, one with the NFL. So how did you juggle that with the internships with school and tennis as well?
A: I do get stressed because I get to do so many amazing things and have a bunch of internships and work experience while being a student-athlete here. You feel some pressure to succeed, both in the office and also on the court. (I’m) just juggling it….I’m just so lucky to be doing this. I don’t want to look back at my time and think, man, I wish I did more. I wish I leveraged this more to be able to pursue these opportunities. For example, this semester, I’m working a part-time job with one of the biggest agencies in the world, so being able to do that and compete for a national championship with my girls. It’s a dream semester for me. I’m just so grateful to be able to have both of those things.
Q: Do you ever think one weighs on the other?
A: Oh, my gosh, yeah. When I was in New York, there were not many public tennis courts, so I would have to take all my tennis stuff. I left the NFL headquarters and took a train to the Bronx from Manhattan. I talked to the NFL and coordinated. They gave us free court time, and this other girl and I would take a 45-minute train ride to the Bronx, which is scary. It’d be like 7 p.m., we would take the train ride home. Go to sleep. Wake up, and do that all over. It was a grind. I remember working on top of that, it (was) stressful. You want to do good at everything you’re doing. That’s also the student-athlete in me, wanting to be perfect at everything. But at the end of the day, I’m just so lucky. You’ve got to shift your mindset from thinking, gosh, I have so much to do, but rather, man, this is the life. I’m living my dreams.
Q: What did you realize you love about sports management so much?
A: Being a student-athlete at UGA is so amazing. The platform that we get and the experiences we go through….When my tennis career is over, I want to continue to help enrich this platform and continue to help sports evolve. The stage, especially in America, that sports are put on is incredible. Why would I not want to be working and helping other athletes? Helping their brand and having them get the best experience out of their career possible.
Q: What’s your biggest inspiration back home in LaGrange, Illinois?
A: A core memory growing up is my parents are such inspirations as I hope every child says that about theirs….I’m very small in my sport, too. I remember my parents would always read me “The Little Engine That Could” growing up. That’s such a core memory. I was thinking whatever you want to do, you can do it, no matter if they say you can’t. I think that’s also being a female in the sports industry or even in the business industry. Being 5-foot-3…. on the tennis court, it’s just defying odds and proving people wrong.
Q: And so I understand your family members are big Chicago sports fans, did growing up in that household and environment contribute to your career aspirations?
A: In my family, you’re into sports, whether you want or not. My mom did an Ironman when she was 40. My dad is an awesome athlete, too. My older brother played rugby, and my younger brother plays baseball. Sports is all we know. It’s what we grew up doing. When I got to college and decided to major in sport management…I grew up playing sports. This is all I know. What else would I really want to do that I would be passionate enough about? So that’s how that happened.
Q: What else from your childhood influenced you to be where you are today?
A: I’ve always enjoyed being around people and getting to know their stories, and building relationships. That has contributed to my career path I want to go in regard to the specific sports business section that I want to be in…I learned to love people and learned to work with different types of people. I think also moving to boarding school and being in that environment versus being in a public school in Chicago and then coming here and being with all international students, I learned to deal with so many different types of people. It’s helped me learn how to communicate well with others.
Q: Have you ever had any of your own mental health personal experiences?
A: Mental health awareness has definitely changed since I was a freshman here. I’m definitely a huge advocate. I’ve had firsthand experiences of watching other student-athletes struggle. I’ve had my own hardships. I want to say that I don’t know the exact percentage, but from my own experience, there’s about 90% of student-athletes seek mental health professionals at UGA. I think the cool thing is that that stigma of if you’re seeking a sports psychologist or a therapist that you’re crazy has ended. It’s awesome because we all struggle. Being able to accept that and know that everyone else is going through it, too. It’s another thing that makes being a student-athlete here so amazing. We are all just persevering through so many different battles and challenges, whether it’s on the court or on the performance field, or in the classroom, juggling it all.
Q: Do you have a teammate or coach so you tend to turn to if you’re really feeling one of those hardships at the moment?
A: My associate head coach, Drake Bernstein, is just, he’s my rock. He’s everyone’s rock. He’s such an incredible person. We’re so grateful to have him and have our relationship with him. But also, our team works closely with a sports psychologist, and they’re incredible. They truly are implementing so much help on the mental side, whether it’s mental, helping with performance, or if it’s just seeking help for life struggles. It’s nice to have those people around.
Q: You’re coming off a big win in the SEC tournament, what are your goals going into this NCAA tournament?
A: That was a dream. I’m just so happy with my team in the way that we persevered the whole weekend. It’s tough being a high-ranked seed, especially beating A&M, who (we) barely lost to in the regular season. It was a heartbreaker. But I’m just so proud of the way that we’ve all come together as a team. I’m just so excited for these next few weeks in the NCAA tournament. I’m trying not to think about it being my last ever tennis tournament because that’s wild to think after 20 years.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I will be continuing with CAA, which is the sports agency I’ve been with. It’s a dream job. It’s my dream agency. So, I’ll get to do that. I’m hoping to be in Atlanta, which is close enough to Athens, to come back for some football games and reunions. I’m definitely not going to pick up another tennis racquet for a while. I’ll maybe transition to pickleball, but I’m just excited to be ‘washed up.’ I’m excited to give my body time to revive. For once in my life, (I’ll) be on my own schedule. If I want to go and have a girl’s night out, I can do that and not have to worry about 6 a.m. workouts the next day or things like that. I know it’s (going to) be different, but I’m excited because it will be a fun refresher.
Lindsey Bornhorst is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.